Is this Germaine Greer's #listeningtomen face? Photo: Getty
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Mansplainers anonymous: Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit’s lead essay became a viral sensation because many women recognised the experience of having their expertise instantly dismissed because of the lady-shaped package it came in. 

Men Explain Things to Me
Rebecca Solnit
Granta, 144pp, $12.99

A few months ago, I went to record a television show about politics. One of my fellow guests was a male political writer, past the first flush of youth, and for half an hour we gave the somnambulant viewers of daytime telly the benefit of our dubious wisdom. Afterwards, I asked him what he was off to do next. “Oh, lunch with a spad. You know, we talk off the record and they give me stuff for the paper.” He continued in this vein for several minutes, during which my eyebrows crept ever closer to my hairline. Was this guy explaining the concept of the lobby system to me? It appeared that he was. He must have thought I’d won the opportunity to appear on a politics TV show in a raffle.

Thanks to the lead essay in this collection by Rebecca Solnit, I knew that I wasn’t alone in being patronised in this intriguingly gendered way. Men Explain Things to Me begins with the writer in Aspen at the home of an “imposing man who’d made a lot of money”. Hearing that she is an author, the man asks, “in the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice”, what her books are about. She begins to tell him about her latest work, on Eadweard Muybridge, but he cuts her off: “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” She and her friend try in vain to tell him that it’s her book he’s talking about. But he carries on, “with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority”. When her friend finally communicates the idea that a woman could have written the book the Very Important Man liked so much, it transpires he has not even read it, just read about it in the New York Review of Books. He turns ashen.

Solnit’s essay became a viral sensation because so many women recognised an experience they had never been able to vocalise before: having their expertise instantly dismissed because of the lady-shaped package it came in. The subsequent discussion led to the coinage of the word “mansplaining” (although Solnit’s not a fan of it and neither am I: you don’t fight being patronised by patronising others in return. I’ve met at least, ooh, two or three men, maybe four, who were perfectly tolerable human beings).

The internet being what it is, the essay was strip-mined for that one idea and very little attention was paid to where Solnit takes it next. She weaves a global story of women’s voices and their testimony being downgraded or dismissed: the female FBI agent whose warnings about al-Qaeda were ignored; the women who need a male witness to corroborate their rape; the writers and politicians whose anger is read as “shrill” and “hysterical”, who are told to “make me a sandwich” by 17-year-old neckbeards on Reddit. We saw it again when William Hague’s recent attendance at a summit on rape in war zones was deemed a trivial distraction from Proper Foreign Policy, which involves bombs and flags and men firing AK-47s into the air. (The Bosnian war: 50,000 rapes. Eastern Congo: 22 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women report conflict-related sexual violence. Iraq: who knows?) That self-important guy in Aspen is the thin end of a thick wedge.

Solnit was the perfect writer to tackle the subject: her prose style is so clear and cool that surely no one can have caricatured her as a shrieking harpy? (My mouse hand strays to Google to disprove myself.) There are only seven essays in this book, but the subjects range from the metaphors of Virginia Woolf to the sexual harassment suffered by female protesters in the Arab spring; perhaps the most disturbing is a piece mirroring Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s approach to his hotel maids with the IMF’s treatment of developing countries. I finished this book and immediately wanted to buy all the author’s other works. In future, I would like Rebecca Solnit to Explain Things to Me.

Helen Lewis is the deputy editor of the New Statesman

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.